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‘Blurred Lines’ case blurs the line between ‘song’ and ‘style,’ local musicians say

The family of Marvin Gaye sued Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams, saying their hit “Blurred Lines” sounded too much like Gaye’s hit “Got To Give It Up.” A California federal jury on Tuesday awarded the family more than $7 million. Among songwriters in Kansas City, the verdict elicited a variety of opinions.
The family of Marvin Gaye sued Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams, saying their hit “Blurred Lines” sounded too much like Gaye’s hit “Got To Give It Up.” A California federal jury on Tuesday awarded the family more than $7 million. Among songwriters in Kansas City, the verdict elicited a variety of opinions. Invision/The Associated Press

Was it homage or theft?

The family of Marvin Gaye sued Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, saying their hit “Blurred Lines” sounded too much like Gaye’s hit “Got to Give It Up.” A California federal jury on Tuesday awarded the family more than $7 million.

Among songwriters in Kansas City, the verdict elicited a variety of opinions.

Some saw it as a blatant mimic of a famous song. Others thought it was a tribute to a song, an era and a legendary songwriter. Most agreed, however, that the verdict may have changed the songwriting landscape.

“My concern about the ‘Blurred Lines’ verdict is that they are disputing the parts of the recording that are not actually the song; it’s the production, the groove, feel, and the performances of hired musicians,” said Ben Grimes, a former Kansas Citian, now living in Los Angeles, who was the chief songwriter in several bands, including Soft Reeds and the Golden Republic, who released an album on Astralwerks records in 2003.

“‘Blurred Lines’ is clearly an homage to ‘Got to Give It Up,’ but that doesn’t equate to theft of song. It equates to theft of style.”

Others shared Grimes’ perspective.

“In ‘Blurred Lines’ the issue lies in the groove,” said Isaac Flynn of the Kansas City band Hembree. “In my opinion, they overdid it by using all of the same instrumentation as ‘Got to Give It Up.’ In their defense, they didn’t steal any melodies, and melody is often the most recognizable part of a song.”

“Blurred Lines” is the second song to make the news recently over appropriation of its elements. In January, British singer-songwriter Sam Smith, 22, agreed to settle a copyright dispute with Tom Petty over Smith’s hit “Stay With Me,” which shared likenesses with Petty’s hit, “I Won’t Back Down,” a song released in 1989, more than three years before Smith was born. Was it intentional or accidental?

“I can easily believe Sam Smith had never heard a Tom Petty song or even knew who he was at the time,” said Josh Berwanger, formerly of the Lawrence (and Vagrant Records) band the Anniversary and leader of the Josh Berwanger Band. “I believe a lot of pop stars today are not educated in music, and I’m meaning albums and bands of the past, not notes and chords.”

Berwanger cited the song “Last Nite” by the Strokes, which opens with a riff nearly identical to the opening riff in another Petty song, “American Girl.” Petty called out the Strokes, but took no legal action.

“Petty said in a Rolling Stone interview, ‘The Strokes took “American Girl,” and I saw an interview with them where they actually admitted it,’” Berwanger said. “That made me laugh out loud. I was like, ‘OK, good for you.’

“It doesn’t bother me. It probably didn’t bother Petty because the Strokes are real musicians who come from something and are actual rock ’n’ rollers and not some (guy) like Sam Smith or Robin Thicke who no one will even remember in a few years.”

Grimes, however, cited a difference between the two: “The Strokes can release ‘Last Nite’, which clearly references the tone and style of Tom Petty’s ‘American Girl,’ without repercussion because they didn’t plagiarize his songwriting.

“Sam Smith, on the other hand, very obviously, and, I believe totally unintentionally, used Tom Petty’s chorus from ‘I Won’t Back Down’ in his hit ‘Stay With Me.’ Now Mr. Petty is, deservedly, getting a cut of that song.”

Madisen Ward of the duo Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear, said he thought the Petty/Smith dispute was “a stretch.”

“I listened to them back-to-back and to me it sounded like a formula was being followed,” he said. “It didn’t sound to me like a theft or a hijacking, I heard a formula or style, almost like waltz.”

Despite how blurred the intentions of Thicke and Williams might have been, the amount of the “Blurred Lines” award is resonating.

“(This) case marks our arrival at the top of a slippery slope that will potentially lead us to a situation where lawsuits over ‘feel’ become commonplace,” Grimes said.

And that slope could get crowded, he said, citing “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” by the Australian band Jet, which rides a guitar riff identical to the one in Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life.”

“On the same grounds that gave the Gayes this win,” he said, “Iggy Pop should be suing the (bleep) out of Jet.”

Sometimes, the best defense is to admit the similarities and plead innocence or declare allegiance.

Christopher Tolle, veteran of several Kansas City and Lawrence bands, including the Belles, thinks the Gaye family deserved some reward because Thicke and Williams’ intentions were so explicit. But, as in the case of Sam Smith, he thinks most songwriters approach their craft with nothing but good intentions.

“It seems that Thicke and Williams were trying to create a Marvin Gaye-esque track, using Gaye’s song as the blueprint,” he said. “So, I think Marvin Gaye deserves a cut of the royalties because so much of his song was basically lifted for ‘Blurred Lines.’

“Most of the writers I know are trying to express themselves honestly and when confronted with something that might sound too much like someone else will usually ditch the song and move on. Or embrace the similarities and hope Tom Petty isn’t listening.”

Reaction around the country was equally as split.

Some saw it as a greedy move by Marvin Gaye’s family and a blow to the music industry.

Some saw it as justice.

For a side-by-side comparison of the two songs, see this post on our Stargazing blog.

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com. Follow the Back to Rockville blog on Twitter @kcstarrockville.

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